Toluca: Breakdown

20.08.2009 – 23.08.2009

Toluca: Breakdown

The last time I flew around the last of these glorious curves, winding my way up and over these mountains toward Oaxaca City, I was taken aback by the giant hunks of driftwood that’d been painted to resemble colorful mythic monsters along the roadside. I know they were all signifying a shack selling small wood carved and painted animals, but in the mist they were somewhat disturbing.

Compared to what I’d experienced in the previous couple of days and nights in San Jose del Pacifico… they were now downright charming. They made me wonder if the inspiration for these Technicolor painted wooden beasts had been originally inspired by similarly frightening experiences as those I’d had in San Jose del Pacifico? In any case, they were a welcome distraction this time around.

After clearing the mountains, I discovered much of the two-lane highway had been torn up for repair. Unfortunately, that meant an extra hour or so breathing large machinery diesel all the way to Oaxaca City.

Just as I’d expected, the traffic was hot and thick getting through Oaxaca City to the highway going North on the other side, but I was determined to not give up and push on as far as I could get. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to pop out the other side of Oaxaca City and opened the bike all the way up on the long freeway toward Puebla. Already getting a bit sore and thinking perhaps Puebla would be where I’d stop for a night or two. I’d been there once before and Puebla is a great place to spend a little time in.

A little bit of rain here and there, but not enough to deter my quest. Just smooth highway and rolling hills leading up to very dramatic passages over several hundred feet high bridges. The mountain passages on this route are simply amazing. Especially on a motorcycle!

Got a little energy bump from all the magnificent scenery and perfect temps. A photographer could spend months just photographing this one section of highway. But, I was on a mission to get as far away from the darkness I experienced in San Jose del Pacifico as I could. It’s strange to also say that I know I will one day return to that darkly mystic place. It's just my mind had gone nearly as far away as I think I’d ever gone. That’s not always a bad thing, but at this point I wanted to come back down to solid ground for awhile and wanted an unfamiliar city to distract the mind for a couple days and soften the heavy memory.

Made good time and as I approached Puebla I looked further down the freeway toward Mexico City. It was still light for another hour or so. There were two storm clouds in the distance, but it looked like they were both moving away from Mexico City. Stopped for a coffee to reconsider whether I really wanted to unpack my gear in Puebla for the night, likely have to haul I it all up at least a couple flights of stairs, and then haul it all back down and repack it tomorrow before heading onto Toluca.

My back hurt and my joints were sore, but I decided I was going to go for it. I’d studied the map of Mexico City and determined that if I stayed on a particular course, I might be able to completely cross the city in an hour and pop back out the other side on a nice toll highway all the way to Toluca. By my calculations, I could be settling in a room by 8:30pm and enjoying a hot shower before dinner.

My calculations were dreadfully wrong!  Looking back, I should have taken the hint from the Earth mother when she rained a deluge down upon me as I began the decent toward the city. The temperature dropped significantly to a brisk chill and it was now raining off and on. Still, I stubbornly focused on the mission and forged ahead. By almost 7pm the traffic was pretty thick. Tried to keep my mind focused on that hot shower in Toluca and through the rain, reading the road signs ahead. I’d been lucky with my previous jaunts through Mexico City, but also knew that one wrong move and an hour ride could easily turn into several hours.

Apart from the cold and rain, all was still going according to plan. Found the correct Viaduct highway that would take me almost all the way across, and scanned every sign to make absolutely sure I didn’t veer the slightest bit off course. Began to recognize the exit signs and knew the one I needed was coming up soon. The problem was, the signs will say this way or that way… and then split again with no reference at all to the place you want to go. I took one exit, and then another, and soon knew I’d made a horrible error. I was stuck on an 8 lane highway divided by concrete and chain link fence… going the wrong way, freezing and wet in dead standstill traffic heading for a smoke-filled tunnel.

Getting dark, colder and raining harder. Unless you ride a motorcycle, I don’t think you can fully appreciate that this is like. You can barely even see anything over a few feet ahead of you. No windshield wiper, and you know that all of the thick pollution that hangs over Mexico City has particles of human fecal matter in high percentages… and all that comes back down when it rains. You’re soaked in the stuff, and it’s getting splashed up into your face and into your mouth. Only problem is, you can’t escape. There’s nowhere to exit, no shelter. Only cold polluted water, diesel fumes, darkness, blurred vision, and vehicle horns blasting in all directions.

There was a break in the concrete median up ahead that looked like I might be able to squeeze through and at least be going the opposite way. It looked like it was going to be a crap shoot to get my bike perpendicular, through the break, and up to speed before someone could smash into me on the other side. Or, stay put and continue soaking up the polluted nightmare. 

Wrangled the bike just perpendicular enough to pop my front wheel to the other side, the car horns started to blast again, and then a giant truck horn blast coming from the other side of the concrete median. The huge truck was just then passing on the other side and appeared to just barely miss my front tire by inches. Could barely see through all the dirty rain water and darkness, but it looked like I might have a very slight window. Hit the throttle and was through the gap and crossways on the other side of the median with another swarm of headlights heading right for me at top speed. Couldn’t just hit the gas hard because I was on slimy, rain soaked pavement and losing traction would mean this trip was over… for good.

A little bit of easy roll on the throttle and managed to get between lanes as the first two vehicles each swerved a little to miss me. Soon I was back up to speed and trying to regain composure. Looked up toward the roadsigns and noticed I was now going the wrong way again and heading for another complete standstill pointed back toward the heart of Mexico City and not toward Toluca. Again, nowhere to pull over and horns blasting at me from all directions it seemed. The rain falling harder now, and traffic getting even worse.

Would like to say that I was tough as nails... that through it all I kept my cool… that I wasn’t a big baby and managed to keep my focus. The truth is, all I wanted to do is collapse like a three-year-old child, right there where I was and bury my face, crying into my shaking hands. Wanted to completely give up. Only, I wasn’t afforded the luxury of complete failure. To do so would have meant I’d surely die, and I wasn’t quite ready for that level of defeat yet.

Just kept repeating the mantra “don’t panic… don’t panic… don’t panic…” I continued in the flow and took the first exit going anywhere, just to get out of the traffic. Finally, I found a gas station and an awning that I could fit my bike between two cars while I tried to figure out where I was and regain something resembling composure.

The gas station attendants were interested in if I’d actually ridden this motorcycle all the way from Texas into Mexico City. They seemed to have an amazing level of respect for me as I told them of where I’d been thus far and that I just wanted to make it to Toluca and out of this nightmare.

Finally, I actually got accurate directions, and after a few more waves of dirty Mexico City rainwater up my nose, I was on the toll road toward Toluca. The gas station attendant’s empathy and awesome respect for me did make me feel a bit stronger and gave me the last bit of energy I needed to finish the journey to Toluca.

I thought I was out of the woods by the time I reached the city, but it was now around 11pm and I had no idea where I was. Toluca is crawling with police. I’m not sure why that is. Is there a high level of crime there? Or, many government folks needing extra protection? Didn’t know, but after what I’d just endured… I really didn’t care.

Usually, you can count on the least expensive rooms being somewhere near the central plaza of any Mexican City. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dingy, but it can. Again, I didn’t care. At this point my whole body ached. I was cold, dirty, and wet. But, I’d made it!

Spotted a convenient store and parked the bike to ask directions. A low-rider looking car with several drunk Mexican men inside was parked next to me. They looked a bit intimidating, but when I started talking to them they seemed a bit shocked. My fear had pretty much gone at this point. Asked them if they could tell me where the Centro was. While the driver seemed a bit stunned that this gringo didn’t appear to be intimidated, he began to give me detailed directions and confirmed that I could find a room for around $150 pesos near the Centro.

At that point, another man came out of the convenient store with a large quantity of beer for the car. He appeared to be even more wasted than the others and after they told him I was looking for the Centro, he stopped and looked at me… and then toward my motorcycle… then back at me. You could just see the gears turning in his head as he insisted that I not go to the Centro and follow them instead. He wanted me to follow them in the opposite direction of the Centro and away from all the police,  to an area nearby where he said I could find a cheap room for the night.

Now, I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed… but, I haven’t come back from so many journey’s mostly unscathed without having that extra traveler’s sense of impending danger. And, I could tell this fellow was seeing an opportunity. Just looked him in the eye and told him briefly what I’d just been through and that I wasn’t going anywhere with he and his friends. I looked over to the driver who’d given me directions and thanked him as I got on my bike and started it up. As I backed up I could hear the man with all the beer yelling at me and calling me pinche pendejo. I smiled and waved adios to the fellow and was on my way. The directions the driver had originally given me were good and before midnight I was in a clean room, standing under a hot shower.

Toluca was a welcome change. Seemed like a very quiet and peaceful city. In some ways, more desirable than Mexico City. More open and less rushing around. Much of the architecture looked like it was being renovated, and looked as if they were doing a fine job of doing the renovation tastefully.

There are some lovely churches and fountains around the main square, and an amazingly beautiful botanical garden completely covered in stained glass mosaics. Stunning Asian inspired landscaping with Zen feel to the whole place. So peaceful and exactly what I needed after the previous few days.

It was only supposed to be a night stay in Toluca before pushing on, but I was so relaxed that I ended up staying three nights. There’s a majestic mountain range behind the city called the Nevada de Toluca with a lake on top that looks like it formed on another planet. Saw the postcards and thought I might check it out. After a bit of investigation I learned that the weather changes quickly at the summit and you need to be dressed for inclement weather. You also need to leave early in the morning before the rain clouds moved in. Thought about it, and decided for the moment… I was tired of being a tourist. All I wanted to do was roam around and sit at cafes watching locals go about their daily routines. This time, the alien lake would have to be enjoyed via postcard. Perhaps next time I’ll venture up to the “Lake of the Moon” atop the “Nevada de Toluca”. This time, I was going to just chill for a couple days and appreciate the fact I didn’t die in Mexico City traffic. 

There's a danger of getting too comfortable in any Mexican City. Well, I should say that pretty much applies to just about every city I’ve been to on the globe. You get just a little too comfortable and end up letting your guard down a bit too low and then you’re asking for it. This is exactly what was on the verge of happening on this day. Just wondering around on a lovely day. Snapping abstracts, visiting galleries, and basically just watching the world go by.

I’d covered just about all of the “Historico Distrito” and was so comfortable with the city, I began to wander off from the main plazas and out into what appeared to be very colorful barrios. The colored buildings that look like toys from a distance, were just a short hike up and overlooked the city. I’d spotted that area when I’d first arrived but was being lazy and not up for the hike. Today was the day. I figured, leaving in the morning so I better see what photo gems can be found up the hill before I leave. And, how gloriously colorful it was!

Wandered just about to the top and was about to go over the top into the neighborhood on the back side of the hill when I noticed two Mexican women waving at me frantically. At first I wasn’t sure what they wanted so I just waved back. They got even more frantic so I shaded the sun from my eyes with my hand so I could see them better. It was obvious they were telling me not to go any further… that the area was forbidden for some reason. There was too much graffiti around and I really wanted to see if I could find a part of the barrio that was less tagged. I thanked the ladies for the warning and went the other direction.

After I was sure they could no longer see me, I tried to pass over the hill from the side. A shop owner came running out and told me not to go any further. He was whispering loudly and seemed extremely nervous that someone in the barrio would see him warning me. I asked if the danger was thieves. He nodded “yes” and told me they’d already seen me and planned on taking the cameras around my neck. Decided I better heed this second warning and told him I just wanted one last shot up this ally and I’d leave. He told me to hurry. Got my shot and thanked him quietly for the warning. When I made my way to the bottom of the hill, I noticed two chaps following me all the way down. Snapped a few more images and moved quickly into the middle of a large plaza with plenty of witnesses as soon as I could.

Finally understood why there were so many police in this area. There was only a couple of blocks between what was apparently a fairly dangerous part of town, and the tidy business and government office area of Toluca. In the past, I may have ignored both warnings and gone further. This day, I think I tapped into a bit of that intuition Ea spoke of, thanks to the kindness of strangers. You can walk safely in most of Mexico and every city I’ve ever walked in, but you can never completely let your guard down no matter where you are.

Time to move on! I’ve heard there’s a detour between Toluca and Guadalajara that should be great on a motorcycle. And, it looks like I can easily take the extra time to see it, and make it to Guadalajara the same day. Fully rested now and ready for anything… as long as it doesn’t involve crossing Mexico City again!